Living on the edge

The resilient community of South African olim living in Gaza's satellite moshavim and kibbutzim won't let Kassam rockets push them out of their homes

south africa gaza 88 298 (photo credit: David E. Kaplan)
south africa gaza 88 298
(photo credit: David E. Kaplan)
It's like living near a smoking volcano," says Mervyn Poliak, a former South African from Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza border. The choice of metaphor was clear: lethal payloads waiting to be spewed. "Maybe in our direction, maybe elsewhere, who can tell?" sighs Poliak. Life at the edge of this volcano can be summarized in one word: uncertainty. Kfar Aza is five kilometers from the town of Sderot, which has become well-known internationally for one grueling reason: It offers the closest civilian target for rockets fired from Gaza. "That's why they have missiles fired at them daily and at us occasionally," says Poliak, "although one Kassam did land 20 meters from my old house. One just never knows." Adding to the fear, the homes on the surrounding kibbutzim and moshavim have no bomb-shelters, he says. So what do Poliak and his wife Leah do when they are at home and the siren sounds? "We hug each other." The barrage of Kassams terrorizing the south-western Negev led the South African Zionist Federation's (Telfed) Absorption Committee to visit the area in May - shortly before the Hamas takeover of Gaza - to meet with members of their community. Metro accompanied the group of 20 Telfed members from the center of the country. "We want to hear their stories and learn if there is anything Telfed could do to help," explained the absorption committee's chairwoman, Toni Milliner of Kfar Saba. While no Kassams fell during the course of the day, they did fall the day before, and the day after. And if anyone needed a reminder that the green fertile fields belie a battleground, all on the bus took a deep breath as they looked out the windows as the bus passed the off-road to Sderot. The fields were a stark carpet of black - the visiting card from a Kassam from Gaza. Ten minutes later the group alighted from their bus at the picturesque home of Wolfie and Merle Harris at Moshav Sde Nitzan. Sout Africans from the region congregated on the lawn and Milliner opened the proceedings by inviting people to speak about their experiences. Ivan Fleish from nearby Moshav Talmei Yosef recalled Telfed's last visit 12 years previously, and spoke of a reversal of fortunes. "When you guys last came the place was peaceful but many of us were struggling financially. Today most of us are doing very nicely and our concerns are safety." No-one disagreed. One by one people spoke about life in the area. Merle Harris, a social worker at the social services department of the Eshkol regional council, drew a clear distinction between what was happening in their area and in Sderot. "There is no comparison with what they are going through," she said. Nevertheless, a Kassam struck the building where she works. "Fortunately nobody was in the building at the time, but it did leave a big gaping hole in the roof." Gaping holes are one thing. The more serious scars are the psychological damage to people of all ages. Harris explained how her department deals with local residents who are immediately affected by an attack, and those who manifest symptoms sometime later. The delayed reaction cases are not infrequent. "You can have a Kassam falling someplace and the people will only call in a few days later." The magnitude of the problem was brought home when she revealed: "For every physical injury case, there are four to five stress or anxiety-related ones." She spoke of the lessons learnt from the Second Lebanon War. "What we are doing now in our area is what we call 'community immunity,' that is, to prepare and involve the community in crisis management. Committees are set up and people receive training for specific tasks relating to a range of potential crisis-related events." The spin-off, she says, is that people in advance of situations are "channeling their fears and anxieties into something positive, beneficial and preventative. This is why we call it 'community immunity.'" Despite the ongoing situation, her husband Wolfie, vice-president of a company specializing in telecommunication software, has no regrets living in Sde Nitzan. "This is an extraordinary place to live, to bring up kids. If we look at what we have achieved here, there is no other way to describe it other than as a success story. Merle and I made the right decision. Let me make it clear, we're staying. The threat is real - in some sense surreal because the area is so scenic and pastoral - but we will handle it." Milliner drew attention to an illuminating statistic that, in a sense, proudly flies the flag of local resilience. "It would appear that most of your kids, now grown up, are returning to settle in the area." "Our youngsters call this region 'HaEzor' (the area)," Wolfie Harris pointed out. The former Southern Africans sitting in a circle on the lawn were unanimous. The term 'HaEzor' has a resonating ring to it. This crowd is staying. Over the course of the next few days, Metro contacted other former South Africans living in the area who had been unable to attend the gathering. Ralph Lewinsohn and his wife Barbara arrived on Kibbutz Kfar Aza in 1975. A Kassam recently missed their home by some 20 meters. "One has only 20 seconds to find shelter once the siren goes. That hardly leaves much time. Not that it really matters, as none of the houses have shelters anyway," he said. Lewinsohn feels the government should at least be providing temporary shelters around the kibbutz. "We do feel we are living in somewhat of a backwater here, neglected by the authorities." This was a point expressed by many at the Sde Nitzan gathering. The general feeling was that the roads are in bad shape and have not been upgraded like in other parts of the country. They cited the recent road death of a young boy that they maintain would not have happened had a certain section of the road been improved, a request that local residents have been lobbying for for some time. It was felt that only when incidents are high-profiled in the media do government officials take notice. Poliak cited as an example a recent article on the front page of the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot, showing a photo of "very young children sitting on the bar counter in our kibbutz pub. How did this happen? Because we had no protection for the youngsters, we moved one of our kindergartens into the pub, which has an underground basement. We acted out of necessity for the safety of our kids. Following the article, the Ministry of Education visited the kibbutz to investigate. Their concern was the 'bad image' conveyed on the front page of a newspaper. It didn't reflect well on the ministry to have kids' pictures in a pub. We explained that if the government would not look after our kids, we had to improvise as best we can, in this case converting a pub into a safe kindergarten. But this is how we attract attention in our neck of the woods. It's very sad." Ironically, it is safer living closer to the Gaza border than Sderot. "We see the Kassams flying above. For the most part we are observers," said Lewinsohn. "Nevertheless, we hear all the time the sounds of gunfire - sporadic and submachine, the noise of the drones flying above and sometimes the booming firing of tanks." Harris's description of "surreal" came back to mind. The area is truly beautiful. But local residents hear more than they see. "At times, it's like tuning in to a soundtrack of a war movie," sighed Lewinsohn. Abe (Abba) Nurick from Sa'ad, a religious kibbutz, is affectionately referred to by local former South Africans as "the vatik" (the veteran). He arrived from Cape Town in 1950 and settled with his Israeli wife on Kibbutz Shluhot in the Beit She'an Valley. "My wife found it too hot in the summer, peaking at 45 degrees and so we relocated here in the early 1960s. Nowadays the heat is of a different variety," he philosophically lamented. Kibbutz Sa'ad has been taking a pounding. The day before the interview, a Kassam narrowly missed a truck bringing provisions to the kibbutz. Nurick rattled off the locations that have been hit - homes, the lawn, near the kindergarten, a near-miss of the dairy, and so on. "We have been very lucky - lots of damage, but no physical injuries." How "lucky" was brought home by the most frightening account of how a "Kassam penetrated the roof of a house and remained perched in the main bedroom. A few meters below, on the bed lay a terrified mother and her two babies, aged four months and four years. The Kassam failed to explode." Are people to rely on luck? Kassams may fail to explode, but "we expect the government to come to light and make it a top priority for adequate protection for each home," Nurick reiterated. "It's quite amazing though - although it is scary, the more these things happen the more you get used to it. The abnormal becomes the normal." Nurick cited one clear example of how the situation has changed their lives. All his children today live in the center of the country. "We tell them not to visit, too dangerous, so we travel north to see the kids and grandkids. Not easy, but what can we do?" Jonathan Wides, also from Kibbutz Sa'ad, arrived in Israel as a youngster with his parents from Durban. He grew up in Rehovot, where he met his wife. They have six children. "We are concerned, but not enough to pack up and leave." The Wides family has experienced two near misses. "One Kassam landed 30 meters from our house, another 50 meters away, but we love the area and the life on kibbutz, so we're staying," said Wides, a reservist helicopter pilot in the IAF. "I believe we need to be far more aggressive. They need to know that there is a price - that whenever they attack us, it is going to exact a tough response." What struck this writer was the frequent use and understanding of the word "lucky" in the local lexicon. It seems to have a geographic component to its usage. Wolfie Harris recounted the case of the Sderot resident who in less than 10 days "had his car struck by a Kassam, two days later his wife's vehicle was targeted and then six days thereafter, his house took a direct hit." And yet, defying all the odds of such accumulated bad luck in the space of so short a period of time, people still say he was "lucky." Why? Because no-one was injured. And in that sense they're right. He was lucky. Through all the ongoing pain and anguish of those residing under the shadow of "the volcano," one image sticks out: Ralph Lewinsohn standing alongside a war-battered Egyptian Brenn halftrack on Kfar Aza that was quite literally stopped dead in its tracks in 1948 by young Israeli fighters. Nearly six decades later, a tree grows inside the halftrack occupying the space where Egyptians soldiers once sat. Today it is a memorial - unpretentious, understated ,with no plaque. No dates or details of a war that has had no genuine end. If there were to be a plaque, the words of Isaiah would suffice: Let us beat swords into plowshares. "They can come at us with all the instruments of death and destruction, but we Jews are here to stay," says Lewinsohn. "We represent the tree." From southern Africa to southern Israel According to the South African Zionist Federation, some 250 former South African families live between Lachish and Eilat, including several dozen families in kibbutzim and moshavim within the range of kassam rockets. Former South Africans have been living in the region close to Gaza for many years. While in the early days they were mainly involved in agriculture, today they are also active in hi-tech, the professions, tourism, academia or as one retiree joked "babysitting our grandchildren." With recent improvements in transportation infrastructure - particularly Highway Six - perceptions of location and distance have changed. Wolfie Harris of Sde Nitzan in the Western Negev is vice president of a company based in Hod Hasharon: "What's the big deal? I slip on a CD and traveling on route six, it's probably less demanding and not much longer time-wise than those traveling to Tel Aviv from Ra'anana," he says.